The aftermath of the Matabele Rebellion

This entry is part 13 of 20 in the series History of the amaNdebele

Matabeleland should be treated as a portion of Mashonaland lately occupied by the MatabeleLeander Starr Jameson

The trust placed in Cecil John Rhodes by the amaNdebele leaders was the trust of desperation, and it was by no means absolute, and bearing mind that Rhodes was a proven master of negotiation the terms of peace were as mixed as they were many. Underscoring the settlement, however, was the sense commonly felt among the rank and file of the amaNdebele, and one that Rhodes himself could not fail to acknowledge, that the amaNdebele had not literally surrendered, but had in fact agreed to overtures for peace initiated by the whites. This was certainly true, and it could therefore never be said that they had been defeated, meaning, it was assumed, that the terms of abject surrender in this case did not apply.

In the meanwhile an unexpected change had begun to come over Cecil Rhodes a shis acquaintance with the amaNdebele deepened. Here was a man who had recently witnessed a significant portion of his empire crumble. He had entered the country disgraced by his peers, powerless to influence matters underway and at best an interested observer in the closing battles and skirmishes of the Rebellion. But now he was once again the principal figure. By the sheer force of his immense personality Rhodes had wrested control of events from the military commanders, and although tenuously mandated by the Imperial Factor to effect change, change it seemed was now inevitable.

Some would say this was simply vintage Rhodes, and they would be right, but it was vintage Rhodes with a difference. The change had come principally in his view of Matabeleland, and what it came to symbolize to him personally. Prior to these few vital weeks Matabeleland had represented just a small part of a much larger picture. The amaNdebele themselves had been faceless irritants who had temporality stood in the way of his expansive plans, and after initial defeat had attempted to do so again. How his actions, and the actions of Jameson and all his other settlers, had ramificated on the lives, beliefs, aspirations of these people had affected him not one iota.

Now Rhodes was abruptly struck by a Kiplingesque view of the amaNdebele as the Noble Savage. He was moved somewhat by what he had done, and the changes that he had wrought, and the impact of his manifest destiny on the lives of those now irreversibly displaced by time, fate and history. The Great Indabas were a rite of passage for him, and a period of bonding between he and the amaNdebele – he who needed a cause of great magnitude to re-confirm his importance in his own eyes, and the eyes of others – and the amaNdebele, who, leaderless in a blinding political sandstorm, sought the familiar landmark of a powerful leader. And indeed, on a personal level, Rhodes was impatient, accustomed to sweeping power, and of a strong and commanding nature. This was entirely what the amaNdebele understood, and yearned for, and when Rhodes placed his authority at their disposal they were quick to take up the offer.

Very little documentary evidence of what actually took place during that warm month of October 1896 survives, a fact which helps in many ways to cement the myth of a unique meeting of minds. This meeting of minds certainly did occur on at least some level, although it would probably be overstating the matter to suggest that the amaNdebele found in Cecil John Rhodes a replacement for the king that they had lately lost, but not that they responded to his style of dispensation far more readily than they would have the officious professional bureaucrats who were the only alternative. One of Rhodes’ many biographers, J.G. MacDonald, who in later years served as manager and administrator of the Rhodes Estates in Rhodesia, and who knew Rhodes very well, kept the great man company during the period of the Indabas, and it is his recollections more than any other that give life to the dry official records of the period.

MacDonald records a number of Rhodes’ personal intercessions and settlements with notable amaNdebele leaders at that time, some substantive, others simply anecdotal. One such regular visitor to Rhodes’ encampment was Babayane, veteran of the 1888 embassy to the court of Queen Victoria, and by then an aged gentleman interested more in a comfortable dotage than the power politics of his nation. At the beginning of the rebellion Babayane had maintained a posture of neutrality, waiting to see which side would emerge victorious, but he had been pressured into briefly joining before defecting again upon the realisation that the cause was hopeless.

Another was the redoubtable Mtjane, Lobengula’s long time commander-in-chief, and architect of the last great engagement of the Matabele War. MacDonald described Mtjane as: ‘Standing some six feet high, with a fine carriage and noble bearing, full of scars honourably got in many a raid and battle, brave as a lion and trusted by all, M’jana (sic) was the Marshal Ney of the Matabele army.’[i] Mtjane had refused to involve himself in the rebellion, but had remained steadfastly ‘loyal’, and was by then the recipient of a monthly allowance that allowed him to live in comfort until his death in 1907.

Then there was ‘…the gallant Gambo, who owned the allegiance of the largest following of all of them.’[ii] Gambo, who had commanded the impi that shadowed the pioneer column in those tense days of 1890, was described as a man close to Rhodes’ heart, energetic, forward thinking and concerned with the betterment of his people. Gambo too had remained loyal to the occupying power, sensing, as had Babayane and Mtjane, that no ultimate good could come of the Rebellion.

These men set the tone for other, more militarily active indunas to follow, men whose view of the potential settlement carried more weight among the population. Somabulana, Umlukulu, Sekombo, Dhliso, Hluganiso and many others formed the vanguard of the intact corps amaNdebele chieftainship who visited Rhodes with a view to assuring the long term security of their people. Another occasional visitor, but one who captured Rhodes’ particular attention, was Faku, a ‘loyal’ chief who commanded a very large following, and who Rhodes felt was owed particular recognition.

The settlement made with Faku was important inasmuch as it tended to define the overall settlement, and define also the sentimentality that competed in Rhodes’ complex psyche with the flint hard negotiating credo that had so far never failed him. Faku happened to fall ill at a crucial moment during the Indabas, and sent a messenger requesting that Rhodes visit him at his kraal instead. This Rhodes duly did, and implored the old man to allow him to send him to a hospital. Faku refused, pressing upon Rhodes instead an impassioned plea for assurances that his people would be given adequate land to grow their crops and graze their cattle, and moreover a fair and dignified dispensation in the peace that now seemed inevitable.

This proved to be a pivotal moment in the long process of the peace negotiations, and moved by the elemental spectacle of a proud old man begging for the future of his race Rhodes made a hasty if defining promise. ‘I promise you that it will be put right,’ he said, ‘ample land will be set aside for the whole of your nation, and I will buy all the land surrounding your kraal and also that surrounding of others of Lobengula’s relatives which has been disposed of by the government. None of you will ever be disposed. I pledge my word to you on this.’[iii]

This then became the pattern for most of the substantive leaders of the nation, who each in their turn visited Rhodes, received similar assurances, and so pledged their loyalty and an end to the war. The single holdout was an induna by the name of Holi who commanded a large and mixed following mainly of Kalanga, Sotho and Venda stock who determined that the fight in the Matopos hills would continue. Rhodes had no patience at this stage with such invocations and determined to wear Holi down in the same manner that countless business rivals had in the past been squared. He decamped and set off with a small entourage to the location of Holi’s kraal, and there established himself under the nose of the rebel until he secured his reluctant loyalty with persistent pressure and another plainly articulated promise of land and security.

This and many similar promises made by Rhodes during those vital weeks of the Great Indaba were pivotal to the peace that was afterwards established. These had been easy promises to make at the time, but were complicated by the obvious fact that the settler community and the ad hoc administration of the colony had set as their minimum standard the total surrender of the amaNdebele. To the whites Rhodes suggested that this had indeed been the case, but to the amaNdebele themselves he couched the negotiations more in terms of a compromise. This then reinforced the general sense among the amaNdebele that what was on the table was not the terms of surrender, but their response to overtures by the whites, which led to the inescapable conclusion among them that it had been the whites, not the amaNdebele, who had initially sue for peace.

Rhodes’ pledge to the amaNdebele was basically this: He first gave an undertaking that large numbers of influential individuals, their families and interests would be protected. Secondly he promised that all those who would agree to leave the hills and occupy the flat spaces to the north and south of the Matopos would enjoy occupation of the land into perpetuity. Thirdly he promised those who remained in the hills of the Matopos, a largely indigenous population known as the Banyubi, would retain secure land tenure and remain undisturbed.[iv]

All this amounted primarily to a land settlement, since it was land that was largely at issue. It could also be surmised, bearing in mind that the amaNdebele leadership and social structure remained largely intact – barring perhaps a few amaHoli elements captured at various times who had taken the opportunity to rejoin their parent societies – that the chiefs and tribal leaders assumed that they would maintain authority over the day to day lives of their people, leaving the larger question of national management ostensibly in the hands of Rhodes himself, as the Great White Chief, but in reality to the many departments of an emerging modern state, and the Native Department insofar as this affected the lives of black population of the colony.

To a sanguine listener this was indeed a de facto a land settlement. However, to any in a more pragmatic frame of mind, which neither Rhodes nor the amaNdebele during those emotionally charged weeks were, the solution would obviously, and for many reasons, have been impractical. However at that time it provided a basis upon which to end the war, and of the unpalatable details that would be sure to follow, time enough remained in the future to see these settled.

One glaring fact that might have been glossed over was that all of the land promised to the amaNdebele already lay under some degree of private ownership. To the north of the Matopos land was already occupied, and to the south it had been surveyed and demarcated in preparation for alienation to white settlers. The setting aside of sufficient land to be true to Rhodes’ promise, therefore, was largely beyond the capacity of the Native Department. Although many amaNdebele retained temporary residence on their traditional lands, the terms under which the land had been alienated or sold allowed for the new owners or lessees to demand the instant removal of every native resident on it if that suited their purpose.

Rhodes, however, did not concern himself at that point with the apprehensions of the Native Commissioners, but instead resorted to the unimpeachable power of his cheque book. He purchased wholesale a vast tract of land situated south of Bulawayo and north of the Matopos with the primary intention of settling the ‘rebels’ and ‘friendlies’. The remainder were encouraged – and this remainder was mainly the following of the induna Holi – to migrate south of the Matopos into a huge tract of demarcated but as yet unoccupied country known as the Mapane Veld. What in the long term Rhodes thought would be done with these people has never been recorded, but his sense could hardly have been that their tenure would be permanent.

Meanwhile Rhodes’ new estate situated north of the contested Matopos hills was made up of the purchase of a series of private holdings that in total comprised 95 000 acres, which became known as the Rhodes-Matopos Estate. There on July 5 1897 he held another of his lavish Indabas, inviting all the chiefs and people of the Matopos, for whom he laid on a feudal feast, and undertook to allow them, both rebel and friendly, to occupy his farm on a permanent basis. He also offering the estate as a haven for prominent amaNdebele from areas other than the Matopos, and members of the amaNdebele royal family, any of Lobengula’s queens who cared to indulge him, and various religious and secular notables.

Meanwhile, and under the same spirit and expectation of security, but without the detailed conditions made available to the tenants of the Rhodes estates, thousands of blacks had begun to move from the Matopo Hills southwards into the unoccupied lands of the Mapane Veld. In this instance there was no security of tenure at all. The entire area of the Mapane Veld – now the region of Gwanda, Kezi and Antelope Mine – had been reserved as a white farming area, and although largely unoccupied at that time, the whole area had been surveyed and demarcated into separate farms. The incoming settlers were mostly the followers of the induna Holi and his subordinate chiefs and headmen responding to the promises of Rhodes.

This then was the practical expression of Rhodes’ promise to the amaNdebele. It can never be said that he intended anything less than to honour his pledge, but it would also have been unlike him not to sense and act upon more than just one advantage in any given situation. Thus not only had he provided some land security to those with whom he had bonded in a relationship of equals, but he succeeded also in gathering together under one broad arrangement all the notable figures of amaNdebele society where they could more easily be monitored and controlled. Moreover he had put in place a workable blueprint for the future of Rhodesian land management. If the main problem afflicting the blacks of the colony at that time was land, then the main problem afflicting the whites was labour. It stood to reason therefore that a combination of interests would provide the means for both societies to coexist and flourish.

None of this had been articulated during the Indabas, but it soon became clear that the status of the amaNdebele on the Rhodes estate was to be less than that of free agents on the veld and more that of feudal tenants with Rhodes as the ducal landlord. This was in keeping with Rhodes’ sense of himself as the Great White Chief, and the amaNdebele sense of the same. In his experimental offer of sanctuary Rhodes intended to tender a solution for both land and labour, for he also had in mind massive capital developments for his land which began with the construction of a dam on the Westacre portion as early as September 1897. After that he pictured the construction of irrigation channels, followed by the tertiary development of cropping and other capital developments that would necessarily absorb an increasing amount of labour.

Hence Rhodes pictured a triple concept of park facilities for the recreation of the growing white population of Bulawayo, capital development in the form of intensive agriculture, with the larger part set aside for secure black settlement under the careful supervision of white lease holders. Rhodes was the pathfinder of Rhodesia, the arch patriarch, and this was his unofficial blueprint for all land and tenancy in the country. As the Bulawayo Chronicle remarked in the aftermath of the July 5 1897 Indaba: ‘…the Matabele are flocking to Mr. Rhodes’ farms and soon we shall have the results of the system which he is experimenting with. It will be a guide to other landowners and should tranquillise the natives’.[v]

It was in fact increasingly becoming the norm for labour demands in lieu of rent to form the basis of the informal agreements governing land occupation by blacks nationwide, but none of these offered any protection from eviction at any time, even if labour was satisfactorily supplied. Rhodes’ tenants on the other hand were protected by the many unwritten promises that had been made during the Indabas, which also in theory protected them from any arbitrary displacement within the estate. There were a number of instances of white lessees being forced to back down on internal land claims when complaints were lodged against them by Faku and others. So long as Rhodes remained alive this remained the case, and even after his death, and for as long as his memory remained fresh in the minds of policy makers and administrators, the scheme worked, and no individual was evicted from his estates.

Needless to say the arrangement was not without problems of conflicting interpretation. As has been stated the amaNdebele did not consider that their status had come about as a result of a military defeat, and they tended to interpret the promises of land security given to them by Rhodes as more resonant that any subsequent calls for labour. They had been called upon by the Great White Chief to leave the hills and enjoy secure occupation of the flat lands, and this was the least that was owed to them.

It was also not in the nature of the amaNdebele to work, and in particular the aristocratic classes of the nation who were concentrated on the Rhodes Estate. Therefore labour demands were routinely ignored and the blandishments of irritated Native Commissioners seen as the usual moral injunctions of a paternal administration. However, into the rhetoric of managers and lease holder slowly crept the threat of eviction, and although the system of Rhodes’ estates theoretically existed outside the scope of the administration, responsibility for the enforcement of the labour contract began increasingly to fall on the local Native Commissioner. The people resisted, and at the sight of a messenger of the Native Department men of working age fled from the kraals which lead to a virtual collapse of local labour available for the construction of the dam and other projects. Prosecutions were instituted and fines imposed, and in the meanwhile dam contractors began to send out security agents to scour the schools, kraals and villages for errant labour.

The outbreak of the Anglo/Boer War in 1899, and a general interest in not upsetting the natives for the sake of avoiding a repeat of 1896, caused the threats of eviction to lapse, but they had been articulated, and from then on land security on the Rhodes estates was not quite as it had been. This then was the state of affairs when in March 1902 Cecil John Rhodes died. The event briefly united the amaNdebele and the administration in grief, with willing hands being lent to the labour of constructing a road to the site of Rhodes’ grave. A month later the indunas attended the burial with the Great White Chief afforded the amaNdebele Royal Salute.

Thus far it seemed that the amaNdebele had enjoyed the upper hand. The unique relationship between Rhodes and his tenants had during his life been interpreted according to their needs rather than his, and if he had during the closing years of his life immersed himself in their myth, they to some degree were able to infuse themselves in his. The bond between Rhodes and the amaNdebele transitioned from practical to symbolic, and, as the Rhodes Trustees assumed responsibility for the estate of the founder, the power of the spoken word over colonial contract would increasingly be tested.

And it did not take long for the first cracks to appear. As new white lessees set about managing the estates they encountered less resistance from the Company Administration to notices of eviction from certain lands served on the amaNdebele. Subsequent Native Commissioners also tended to interpret more frequently in favour of the lessees the uncertain legal status of amaNdebele on the Rhodes Estate. Whereas previously security of tenure had been guaranteed with or without the provision of labour, now security could not be guaranteed at all, even with the regular and comprehensive supply of labour.

It fell to the Chief Native Commissioner to define the new status of the Rhodes Estate amaNdebele, who referred the matter to the Board of Trustees, who in turn rejected the replacement of Rhodes’ promises with any written statement of contract that might at some point have force in law. The question of land security was soon replaced by talk of compensation. Faku was by then frail and close to death, and so negotiations on behalf of his people were taken over by his son Nyangazonke, who pressed the point that compensation was not at issue. What was at issue was the verbal undertaking of Cecil Rhodes that Faku, his followers and descends would enjoy undisturbed occupation of the land. In the light of contemporary realities this had evolved into a plea for adequate land to be provided on the Rhodes Estates without the risk at a later date of removal or eviction upon a whim or requirement of a leaseholder.

This guarantee could no longer be given, and Faku died in May of 1904 with the solemn promise of Cecil Rhodes in tatters. Nyangazonke was appointed to succeed his father, but by then disillusionment had begun to take root, and people who had once enjoyed the protection of Rhodes began to drift south to mingle with their kinsmen now illegally occupying the Mapane Veld. The movement of people into this region had also been covered by the undertakings of Rhodes during the Great Indaba, but now great uncertainty hung over the occupants of all the un-alienated farms south of the Matopo, who also were ranging with some 10 000 cattle under the ownership of the three principal chiefs Holi, Kezi and Nyangazonke.

Meanwhile, on the Rhodes Estate itself, the movement towards commercial ranching and dairy production began inevitably to clash with the resurgence of amaNdebele cattle now recovering in numbers from the rinderpest and earlier dispossession under the Jameson administration. This necessitated a re-evaluation of the unregulated movement of native cattle on the estate. In a clear departure from the spirit of Rhodes promise the estate administrator decided that, by dint of many of the inhabitants of the land no longer being directly related to those who had received Rhodes’ undertakings, and many others who had not been part of the agreement at all, that rents would henceforth be levied upon all except those that could produce proof that they had worked for one or other of the lessees. This new arrangement was for the first time to be committed to writing, and on 15 February 1908 a number of chiefs and headmen signed a formal labour and rental agreement.

This agreement required that a set period of labour be performed in lieu of rent, differentiated for authentic amaNdebele and others of less determinate ethnicity, with the threat of eviction now clear if such labour or rent was not forthcoming, or indeed as a consequence of any one of a number of transgressions, or if by written notice of 12 months the landlord should wish to make use of any occupied land himself.

     By 1911 this eviction clause had begun to see regular use, while those escaping eviction were increasingly concentrated in limited areas, with steeply restricted liberties, in order that their cattle remain quarantined from any interaction or competition with commercial herds. This lead was followed by other farmers and lessees generally, who increasingly, and with a greater sense of liberty, began to turn blacks off their lands.

Rhodes promise to the amaNdebele had now clearly faded into irrelevance, and moreover seemed absurd when recalled to mind in an environment of colonial contract. In the light of a post-mortem examination of Rhodes earlier motives, he may certainly have made lavish undertakings to the amaNdebele as a means to end the Rebellion, but he had also continued to award written leases to Europeans on the same land, and unless he believed that a sublime partnership would somehow evolve between black and white, he must in the grand scheme of things have envisioned that these would one day supersede the rights and expectations of the amaNdebele. This at least was how his heirs and trustees chose to interpret the matter. As it was observed in a preamble to the sequestration of the Rhodes estate by the Southern Rhodesian Government in 1917: ‘Leases in the past were given on very nominal terms to various persons more or less closely connected with Mr Rhodes and on the grounds of sentiment. There no longer exists an occasion for this…’[vi]

The Native Department had abandoned any obligation it might have felt to honour the pledges of Rhodes. Power over the amaNdebele remaining on the Rhodes Estate was now concentrated in the hands of the lessees, as had become the case with all alienated land outside the confines of the Native Reserves. By the advent of Responsible Government no trace of the notion of equitable land tenure existed anywhere in Southern Rhodesia, and by the time this shift in policy had begun to ramificate deeply on the lives of the people affected by it, it had become too late to leave and seek alternative space. By then the Mapane Veld south of the hills had become the focus of white occupation, and pressure was on those living illegally in the district to move or succumb to the same basic terms of tenancy.

There was very little sympathy displayed by the administration as it pondered the fate of blacks now squeezed between the land expectations of whites flooding into the country in the aftermath of World War One, and the fearful prospect of the native reserves situated mainly north of the regions of traditional amaNdebele occupation. In the view of the Land Settlement Department those blacks in illegal occupation of white farmland had ample space available to them, space the Department remarked upon with a touch of resentment, for if it was fine and hand picked land, as had been so often suggested, then why should it be reserved for blacks whose agricultural practices and sense of the value of land seemed incomprehensibly primitive to those with a commercial view of agriculture.

Meanwhile, and on behalf of the blacks facing eviction or insecurity in the Mapane veld, the Chief Native Commissioner pleaded that those promised land by Rhodes had been in the district for more than a decade, and that the founder had himself decreed that a reserve not too far from the Matopos be instituted in the instance of them being unwelcome on the Mapane farms. This, remarkably under the circumstances, and as a belated appeal to the sprit of Rhodes’ promise, succeeded, and ‘18 000 morgen’ of land was instructed to be chosen for this purpose, land which in due course became the Tshatshani Reserve.

For those that did not immediately move off land alienated to whites rents were levied and pressure applied. Some blacks used cattle revenue to purchase farms of their own, others moved onto the reserves, but many more retraced their steps and returned to the Matopos, or simply remained in uncertainly on alienated land. In the same way many evicted from the Rhodes Estate also returned to the hills. Thus the matter would largely remain as the evolution of the ad hoc colonial administration into a modern government took place. It would be much later that an ordered legal framework would be put into effect to facilitate the wholesale removal of blacks from white owned and occupied land.

The Southern Rhodesian Native Reserve system has its history rooted in the overall land equation of the territory, which has been, and remains, the pillar of every grievance, and the engine of every civil and military strife from the inception of the colony until the present day. The history of land distribution in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, has powerful race overtones, and begins in the modern era with the primary expectation of those that first entered the territory as part of British colonial expansion, and what they hoped to find when they arrived.

The objectives of Cecil John Rhodes himself were too wide ranging and diverse to classify in a nutshell, but he simplified matters for the sake of his shareholders, his employees and his settlers by painting a picture of the land north of the Limpopo River as being a new Witwatersrand, a modern day Ophir where unimaginable reserves of gold lay so close to the surface that a man need do little more than bend down and pick them up. History would prove this picture to be utterly false, or if not false then at least allegorical. Metallurgical industries were eventually founded, and in due course gold mining did grow to take its place among the pillars of the Southern Rhodesian economy, but it was gold of a different sort – Virginia tobacco – that would eventually lay the true economic foundation of the colony.

This epiphany was slow in coming, however, and occurred only after many investments had been lost and much optimism dashed on the alter of economic reality. It is highly probable also that the Matabele War was conceived by the cabal of Cecil Rhodes and Leander Starr Jameson as a means of boosting flagging confidence in the economic future of the BSAC, with the potential to add to the Company portfolio a vast amount of land, and the renewed promise of gold to revive dwindling share prices. It was during the Matabele Rebellion, however, that Lord Albert Grey, Company Director and temporary Administrator in the absence of Doctor Jameson, happened to sample a little locally grown cigar tobacco, and although politely dismayed by its miserable quality, he found himself pondering the potential for tobacco as a cash crop in Rhodesia.

Soon afterwards the railway system, one of the great achievements of the British South Africa Company, was completed, providing access to the central plateau and the proposed commercial heartland of the country. However the system lay idle until Albert Grey’s thoughts on an agricultural industry inspired the British South Africa Company to lay claim to all the un-alienated land in the territory, and to encourage through investment white immigrants to adopt a more permanent view of settlement, and to take up land for the purpose of long term agricultural development.

The deep soils, high rainfall and effective drainage of the central plateau made it ideal agricultural country, and the fact that the railway transected perfectly this region was nothing less than serendipitous. The ultimate ownership of all the un-alienated land in the country quickly fell into dispute, pitting settlers against the British South Africa Company in a struggle that would ultimately end in the achievement of self government for the colony. Neither side gave a great deal of thought to the rights or needs of the indigenous blacks in this struggle. These were quickly marginalised from the lush uplands of central plateau and consigned in virtual totality to proscribed Native Reserves on the extreme fringes of the economic viability.

This was particularly the case in Matabeleland where Doctor Jameson’s high handed initial management saw almost all the viable land of the province distributed into actual or prospective private ownership long before any effective arbitration could be mounted to manage the process. As an initial inducement to fight Rhodes had promised the Mashonaland Volunteers first pick of the land after provision had been made for the natives.

In the immediate aftermath of the war so concentrated was the rush to seize amaNdebele land and cattle that this vague proviso was quickly thrown to the wind and looting went ahead wholesale. Follow-up operations and mopping up also went ahead once the occupation had been established, quite often thinly disguised as operations to loot and seize amaNdebele property. News of these events, and the general lawlessness consequent to the war, reached the ears of liberal parliamentarians in London, and a series of concerned debates were heard in the House of Commons. These were tabled primarily by Henry Labouchere, parliamentarian, social commentator, writer and publisher of the influential journal Truth. Leading a pack of similarly minded aboriginal rights advocates, Labouchere demanded an end to the post war violence, or as it was termed in the House: ‘filibustering and massacring expeditions’.

It was also requested of Cecil Rhodes that he enter into direct communication with Sir Henry Loch, High Commissioner at the Cape, with a view to devising a program for the pacification of territory, as well as some sort of blueprint for the ‘future well being and government of Matabeleland for consideration and approval of Her Majesty’s Government’[vii] The proviso was added that Her Majesty had no interested in driving the amaNdebele out of the country. Even though it had been widely accepted that the amaNdebele military structure needed to be dismantled, this ought not to mean either a war of extermination or expulsion, and it was imperative that a settlement include as an essential feature due safeguards for the protection and rights of the natives. Implicit in this was the necessity of identifying and putting aside suitable land for the long term settlement of the amaNdebele.

This was very much the kind of thing that Rhodes at that time abhorred. Not a great deal of affection existed between he and Sir Henry Loch, besides which, and although not by the standards of his time a racist, Rhodes’ priorities were divided, and divided very much in favour of his settlers and his Board of Directors. He also at that time did not have much direct experience of matters on the ground in Matabeleland, or anywhere in the new territory for that matter, and the ongoing occurrence of what might now be called human rights abuses did not impact him as closely as they later would. Meanwhile, although made with the best intentions, all that was clearly enunciated by the Imperial Government’s directive was the necessity for ‘good and habitable land, water and cattle’ for the amaNdebele.[viii]

Sir Henry Loch responded by preparing a draft memorandum for the establishment of an Administrative Government in Matabeleland and Mashonaland with clauses (17-28) dealing specifically with the question of providing land for the indigenous inhabitants. Clause 17 was prophetic and laid the foundation for a great deal of future bad blood between the Imperial Government and her Southern Rhodesian settlers. It stated that the natives would not be subject to exceptional legislation – apart from what might pertain to alcohol, firearms and the title of land – that was not equally applied to whites. Proposals for anything of this nature would be covered by an imperial veto which would effectively keep the natives under a separate system of government from the remainder of the colony well into the 20th century.

The question then became where and under what terms this separate administration would take place. In other words where was to be the seat of this government by Native Commissioners, answerable to a Chief Native Commissioner, appointed by and answerable only to the Crown. Clause 19 therefore appointed a Land Court to consider the question, while Clause 20 defined the duties of this Court as to assign sufficient and suitable land for the personal, individual and agricultural grazing requirements of Africans.

This and other protective measures were compiled into a draft document that was sent to Cecil Rhodes for consideration. On January 8 1894 a lengthy and at times acrimonious contest was begun between Rhodes and the High Commissioner by the return to the Imperial Secretary of an exhaustive and clause-by-clause criticism of the draft document by Rhodes.

Principal among Rhodes’ objections was the right of the natives to appeal any land allocations deemed insufficient or inappropriate, balanced out somewhat by the right of the Company to similarly appeal if it felt it wanted or needed any land allocated to blacks. Sir Henry Loch, a redoubtable man, was nonetheless less dogmatic and persuasive than Rhodes, and the trimming of the original intent of the document was significant, not least in the matter of this right of appeal, which remained intact for the Company but was removed for the natives. It is also notable that all mineral rights claimed by the Company, and inherent in the Rudd Concession, remained the property of the Company in all areas allocated to the natives. Noteworthy also was the fact that no restrictions existed for natives to enter the freehold market of commercial landownership according to normal market rules, and in fact Rhodes commented that when able to do so the natives should be encouraged to do so.

Seven months later the result of all this was an official Order in Council embodying the eventual agreement between her Majesty’s Government and the British South Africa Company in regard to, among other things, the native land policy of the colony. It now remained for these protocols to be ratified by the actual identification and demarcation of land for the purposes of native settlement. The Land Commission met in Bulawayo initially towards the end of 1894, with the first order of business being establishing just what the population census of natives in Matabeleland was, where the main population centres were as they stood, and whether these were suitable for the formation of native reserves.

It was quickly decided that the main thrust of the Commission would be to inspect the country north of the capital in the area highlighted by the last major action of the war, and ultimately the death of Lobengula. A complex mythology now surrounds the formation and ongoing existence of the two principal Native Reserves which were identified in this region, and which have both since been the theatre of many great and tumultuous events in the post colonial period of amaNdebele history.

The decision to look north was based on the simple fact that white land seizures had not yet affected this region, nominally explored and almost completely unvisited by whites. That Lobengula had chosen this as the direction of his escape was presented as evidence that he had intended to establish a permanent amaNdebele homeland there, and that if this represented the last wish of Lobengula it ought by rights to be acceptable to his people. That Lobengula had made this decision obviously had more to do with the hostility and inaccessibility of the region than any conscious choice to relocate there, but nonetheless the assumption was used by the Land Commission as a pretext upon which to launch an investigation into the viability of large scale resettlement there.

Soon therefore a brace of Commissioners set off to inspect the land, a process that was conducted briefly, and mainly by hearsay, and in due course a swathe of territory was declared suitable for large scale resettlement. After considering the evidence of many natives, a handful of whites, and the facts of a very cursory first hand evaluation, the Land Commission unanimously agreed to assign for the occupation of the amaNdebele two giant reserves, for convenience sake labelled Shangani Reserve and the Gwaai reserve. On June 15 1895 the High Commissioner at the Cape, in a despatch to the Secretary of State, formalised his approval of the report of the Matabeleland Land Commission.

Large scale relocations of course did not immediately begin to occur, since by then the amaNdebele were widely scattered, and the uptake of land claimed by the occupation was slow thanks to absentee landlords or syndicates that made no initial effort to take up or utilise their holdings. Others did take up occupation of the wild reaches of the new reserves, and principal among these was Nyamanda, Lobengula’s eldest son and most likely heir to the throne, his principal Queen Lozikeyi, and other members of the royal family and the ruling elite who had remained nearby after the death of Lobengula. These also were the last holdouts after the collapse of the Matabele Rebellion, being the last to be notified, and as a consequence missing the opportunities presented by the Great Indabas. This also left them with little time to plant, and no access to the gifts and munificence of Cecil Rhodes. Native Commissioners entering the region soon after the Rebellion reported appalling conditions of hunger and deprivation. Whole families succumbed to disease and starvation, with many surviving on the dried carcasses of rinderpest cattle, and yet others foraging in the wilds for sustenance, having exhausted the traditional expedient of looting their neighbours, themselves teetering on the brink of annihilation.

The prospect of mass relocation north for the defeated amaNdebele was bleak, and very few willingly opted to do so. The forests of the Shangani, known in the local language as the Gusu forest, or amaGusu amnYama, or the Forest of Wild Animals, or perhaps the Dark Forest, came to mean to the average amaNdebele a region of suffering, refuge, disease and war.[ix] A handful had traversed it, some whites such as the legendary hunter and tracker Frederick Selous had done likewise, but it had never been part of the settled dominions of Matabeleland, and could scarcely be deemed part of the heartland where large numbers of amaNdebele might now feel sufficiently familiar to settle.

However, small groups of amaNdebele did begin to arrive in the aftermath of the Rebellion, and adapted somewhat to the hostile and unfamiliar conditions. In their midst they found older communities of people who could claim Tonga, Nyai, Shangwe and Lozwi lineage. Some had been incorporated into the amaNdebele nation, others not, but once liberated all had to some degree begun to reform around their earlier identities. The amaNdebele were confronted by older claims to the land and a more established ritual existence. Without centralised authority behind them the new arrivals were obliged to fall back on their innate aristocracy and to assimilate as best they could.

The first wave of newcomers arriving ahead of the Matabele War settled mainly in the east of the Shangani reserve, and came as followers of a few notable chiefs and indunas who tended to make the journey with more cattle than people. One of the first of these was Tshakalisa, one of Lobengula’s sons, and before long he was followed by a number of other aristocratic chiefs who arrived with their cattle, and not surprisingly quickly emerged as social, political and often judicial leaders. The influence of the Sindebele spread and became the language of local authority and administration.

Still the bulk of the amaNdebele population remained out of the reserves, and distributed throughout the territory on lands they had traditionally held, adapting to the conditions of squatters or tenants, and living out diminishing liberty on land increasing coming under white alienation and usage. Mass evictions and wholesale resettlement had not yet begun, and while the Anglo/Boer War was being fought, and while the formal legal framework of land distribution in the colony was under construction, the status quo remained.

It was only after World War I, and the concentrated immigration drives that followed, that the question of black occupation of white land began to impact both races. It was then that administrators, policy makers and planners began to give serious thought to the land and race conundrum, and the issue began to find its way into law. Consequent to this the re-organisation of the shattered black societies of the colony began to throw up an increasing number of young, educated and motivated blacks whose understanding of modern life increasingly equipped them to challenge the settler state. Initially this took place in the cities and industrial centres, but in due course it would grow to cover every aspect of the unequal clash of races in the new colony of Southern Rhodesia.



[i] McDonald, J.G. Rhodes: A Life, (Geoffrey Bles, London, 1927) p269

[ii] McDonald, J.G. Rhodes: A Life, (Geoffrey Bles, London, 1927) p270

[iii] McDonald, J.G. Rhodes: A Life, (Geoffrey Bles, London, 1927) p270

[iv] Ranger, Terence. Voices From The Rocks, (James Curry, Oxford, Baobab, Harare, Indiana, Bloomington, 1999) p73

[v] Chronicle (Bulawayo) 6 July 1897.

[vi] Ranger, Terence. Voices From The Rocks, (James Curry, Oxford, Baobab, Harare, Indiana, Bloomington, 1999) p91

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid p22

[ix] Alexander, Ranger & McGregor, Violence & Memory. (James Currey Ltd. Oxford, Heinemann Portsmouth, NH, David Phillip, Claremont South Africa, Weaver Press Harare) p19

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